What is NLP?

I know that I bang on a bit about how as Life Coaches we need to have as many skills as we possibly can acquire.

That whereas I think Co-Active coaching (al) is the single best method of coaching, it’s not the ONLY way of coaching, and to solely rely on it can at times hamstring us and prevent us from offering the best possible service to our clients.

One other method of coaching is using NLP or neurolinguistic programming to give it it’s full title, but what is NLP?

This post is very much an introduction to NLP.

My main objective is to let you take a peak behind the shroud and show you enough to entice you to delve a little deeper into the aspect, or aspects, of NLP that you believe can most be of benefit to you and your clients.

The Start of NLP

NLP was developed in the mid-1970’s by a linguistic professor John Grinder, and a math student, Richard Bandler who met at St Cruz University in Northern California.

Whereas it wasn’t too long before enmity grew between the men and NLP split into two camps with a legal argument over who owned the rights to the name*, to begin with they hit it off.

*The ensuing court case between the two ended up with it being decided that nobody owned the name, so don’t be fooled by anybody claiming to own the trademark – they don’t.

Bandler and Grinder decided to closely model three of the most successful therapists the world had ever known to see if they could replicate their results.

Milton Erickson

Firstly, there was possibly the greatest psychotherapist and hypnotherapist of all time, Milton Erickson.

Erickson was a strange and fascinating character.

He almost always dressed in purple, was wheelchair bound after contracting polio in his youth and started a form of hypnotherapy (now called Ericksonian hypnotherapy) unlike anything that had preceded it.

Previously hypnotherapists has used the hollywood made famous approach of trance work that involved swinging pocket watches and giving commands when people were ‘under’ to stop smoking, lose weight, be more confident etc.

Erickson doubted the efficacy of this approach and would instead spend hours with clients weaving stories and using metaphors and analogies in an attempt to effect change.

He believed that if he could get past the critical part of the mind to the unconscious he could exact long-lasting change.

Whereas scientists are now starting to doubt if there really is an unconscious mind in the way Erickson thought about it, there is no denying that he got some spectacular results.

Virginia Satir

Secondly, there was brilliant family therapist Virginia Satir.

Known for getting results where others had failed I urge you as a coach just to seek out her work on Youtube because even though you’re not a therapist she is phenomenal and a joy to watch.

Fritz Perls

And finally there was Fritz Perls.

The chain-smoking German founder of Gestalt Therapy was like Erickson, a tad on the eccentric side, but again he got results others struggled to achieve.

The difference between Perls and the other two was he was already dead whereas Bandler and Grinder became close friends and spent hundreds of hours both with Satir and Erickson studying them work and talking with them n depth.

To say Bandler and Grinder achieved the same results by modeling these 3 extraordinary therapists would be a stretch, but they weren’t far behind and NLP was born.

The First book on NLP was called ‘The Structure of Magic Vol 1‘. In it Bandler and Grinder take a close look at what is known as the Meta Model of language.

The Meta Model looks at how we all as human beings delete, distort and generalize information. We have to do this in everyday otherwise we’d go nuts.


Generalizing that all lions are dangerous and maybe you shouldn’t try and feed your Cuban sandwich to Aslan through the bars of his cage at San Diego Zoo is probably fine.

On the other hand, generalizing that every Muslims is a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer, or that all men can’t be trusted probably isn’t a useful generalization for your peace of mind, and it certainly isn’t accurate.

Note: For the really nerdy amongst you, the words  ‘every’ and ‘all’ used in those sentence are known as universal quantifiers as they remove all opportunity for doubt. Other examples are ‘always’ ‘everybody’ ‘never’ etc.


Similarly, “He told me he loves me so he must love me” is a lot better for your mental health than, ‘He told me he loves me so he must be up to something’.

We all distort from time to time (and yes, that was a generalization) based on our world view and belief system, but it’s good to challenge our distortions on a regular basis.

Distortions also include mind-reading when a client claims to understand what another person is feeling or thinking without explicitly being told.

There is also cause and effect and complex equivalences when we jump to the conclusion that one event caused another in the former or one event means another in the latter.

‘He made me cry by shouting at me’ is cause and effect thinking that simply isn’t true because if he were shouting we just won the lottery the person probably wouldn’t cry.

Therefore it’s all in the interpretation of what the shouting means, it’s not the shouting per se.


When I speak to a friend about my wife I do not say Helen every time I refer to her as it would be tiresome and repetitive.

After a while I will revert to ‘she’ as it has been established who we are talking about.

On the other hand, if you have a client kick off a session by saying something like, “he’s gone and done it again” you need to be careful.

You will scan you mind back and maybe you had a conversation with your client about her husband cheating a session or two back.

It would be easy to presuppose that is who she is talking about, but how do you know?

She could have had a terrible row with her boss after he claimed credit for her work again and presumes you know who she is talking about.

In a Life Coaching setting this can cause confusion, waste time and even break rapport. As such it’s important from the start to ascertain who the client is referring too even if you think it’s obvious. It may not be.

The Structure of Magic Vol 1 isn’t a rip roaring page turner of a book, but it’s incredibly powerful and in my humble opinion a must read for all Life Coaches.

The Presuppositions of NLP

There are as many of 27 presuppositions depending on where you look and who you listen to, but there are about a dozen or so that seem to make up the core and demonstrate the true philosophy of NLP.

These are in effect, the belief system of NLP and it would be extremely difficult to embrace the field without at first fully embracing these because they the foundation that it is built upon.

I’m not going to cover them all in this post, but instead look at five of the ones that I feel are the most important to understand and adhere to.

map is not the territory

The Map Is Not The Territory

Have you ever gone into a fine restaurant, sat down with a nice aperitif looking forward to a wonderful meal and then eagerly started to eat the menu as the waiter hands it to you?

Oblivious to the strange looks from your boss and new client who have accompanied you, you devour the entire leather bound Carte du Jour and wash it down with a rather excellent Pinot Noir.

On finishing you declare to your guests you’re slightly disappointed in the food because even though it looked great on the menu it was a tad bland, lacked seasoning, and most surprisingly, the dishes all tasted the same.

I suspect that hasn’t happened to you because you know the difference between the food and the menu, even though the menu can sound temptingly delicious.

Similarly you know the difference between a map and the actual terrain it’s describing.

Not many people have spread a large map out on their floor and after stepping from one side to the other declared confidently and proudly that they were now stood on top of Mount Everest.

Those kinds of people end up wearing white coats with very long sleeves tied around the back.

So if this presupposition has nothing to do with maps, territories or fancy restaurants, what does it mean you may be wondering?

Like every other person on the planet, you view the world through a lens. It’s a lens you’ve taken years to build up and, for the most part, it suits your needs very well

Unfortunately though, the other 7 billion people you share this planet with you have got their own lenses too.

And guess what?

Theirs are completely different to yours. Neither theirs nor yours allow you to see the world as it really is, you just see your own unique reality.

According to Buddhism, truth cannot be described. It cannot be written about and it cannot be talked about. It can only be experienced.

Each day you are experiencing the world, but it is a subjective world and a reality specific to you and you alone. It only exists inside your own mind.

Nobody else exists in your world; everybody else is in their own.

Therefore, when we try and describe how things are, all we are doing is describing how they are for US and this is at the heart of the map is not the territory.

If we can all accept that our view of the world is no more accurate and no more real than the next persons, we are well on our way toward tolerance and peace and avoiding petty argumens on Facebook.

Behind Every Behavior There Is A Positive Intent

This is something I speak regularly to clients about, usually after they have explained to me how they always self-sabotage themselves at crucial moments.

Let me make this as clear as I can.

Nobody self-sabotages.


I’m sure you are trawling the nether reaches of your mind now searching for examples to prove me wrong, but I’m confident you won’t be able to find any.

To make my point, let’s take two extreme examples. The first thing people often say to me is “What about suicide victims or people that regularly self-harm?

That’s an obvious starting point because death must surely be the ultimate in self-sabotage, right? Well no, that’s not really the case.

People that commit suicide have a higher objective because they strongly believe that they’ll be better off dead, or that the people around them would be better served if they weren’t around.

More often than not they are seeking peace or release from their own particular brand of demons.

There can be a number of reasons why people self harm including the endorphin rush it gives them and to ease the feeling of despair and/or loneliness.

In other words, even though it seems ridiculous to most people, the person committing the self-harm is attaining something and as such it has a positive intent.

Every time we make a decision we can only do so with the information that we have to hand at that particular moment.

We can often look back on a situation after the event and it will look like self-sabotage, but only ever in the light of new information.

I am so confident/arrogant about this, I challenge you to give me a single instance of self-sabotage that I can’t explain with a higher purpose.

In coaching of we can start with a client believing that their current behavior has positive intentions we can then look for other options to achieve the same (or usually better) results.

The other alternative is to believe that there is something wrong and attempt to fix it. The former option is much more empowering and thus likely to be successful.

There Is No Failure, Only Feedback

This is probably my favorite presupposition and one I talk about a lot about because it. So many people get wrapped up in the fear of failure, yet it is one of the constants of life.

We all fail multiple times per day, every day. Even if it’s only something simple like putting the milk back with the coffee instead of in the fridge or forgetting to turn the A/C off when leaving the house.

‘Failing’ at something is natures way of giving us feedback that we need to make changes. As children we all had multiple attempts to walk before we got it right.

We didn’t give up after 2 or 3 ties and decide it wasn’t for us.  We kept using the feedback of failure until we finally cracked it and we were staggering around like Bambi on ice.

Think about somebody like world number 1 golfer, Rory Mcilroy, how often do you suppose he hits the ball exactly where he intends? My guess would be well under half of the time. Does that means he’s a failure?

Ex-NFL Quarterback Brett Favre has thrown the most interceptions in football history and Michael Jordon had the most free throw misses in NBA history, are they failures too?

You will fail in client calls sometimes and whereas it feels bad at the time, as long as you learn from it rather than beating yourself up, you’ll be good.

Sure you can learn from my mistakes and those of Karl that we share to the subscribers through our insider guides, but you cannot eradicate failing from time to time, so reframe it and ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?”

mind and body

Mind And Body Form A Linked System

You maybe thinking ‘duh, well yeh’ to this one as science has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the mind and body are one system, but this was a hot topic and seriously in doubt as little as 30 years ago.

Since then we know through research that all internal communication is two way.

In other words you can increase your confidence by standing and adopting the body language of a confident person in the same way as a confident person does this naturally.

You Cannot Not Communicate

Everything you do issues some form of communication to those around you.

It isn’t just the language you choose or even the tonality of that language, but everything that goes with it.

Your body language gives as much away to the acute observer as does the words you use.

I am sure you have been in conversations with people where their words have said one thing and their body language something completely different.

You are always communicating to those around us and our clients are always communicating to us if we are prepared to listen between the lines and observe.

There are numerous other presuppositions as I mentioned, but to me these are 5 that need to be understand and adopted to embrace NLP fully.

What Is NLP?

I have one NLP book on my shelf that runs to almost 700 pages and still doesn’t cover everything NLP has to offer.

I have another book that only looks at the tiny field of submodalities (something we teach on the course) and yet another that devotes a huge chunk to a process (that I don’t even use) called the compulsion blowout.

One technique called the Core Transformation Process developed by sisters, Tamara and Connierae Andreas has its own training certification as does Time Line Therapy which was developed by Tad James from an idea by Richard Bandler.

I have done courses on both of the above, but still don’t feel qualified enough to explain the Core Transformation Process with any authority let alone teach it. The same goes for Time Line Therapy.

Which is why I don’t use either with clients. It isn’t because I don’t think they work (I have seen both be used highly successfully), but because they’re more therapeutic interventions they aren’t patterns I have carried on using

So you can see NLP is a huge field and that’s why when people dismiss it out of hand as pseudoscience they purely demonstrate their own ignorance.

The reality is, there is no ‘thing’ you can call NLP, so by definition you cannot dismiss it.

NLP is relatively speaking, still in its infancy. As such it’s evolving, changing and finding its feet and there are certainly areas where I doubt its efficacy.

It’s also very much ‘open-source’ with thousands of practitioners all tweaking and improving on it on a daily basis, which can be a blessing and a curse.

I think the growth of NLP has been held back for, in the large part, 3 main reasons.

NLP Is A Catchall Term

Firstly, as I’ve explained, it’s a huge umbrella term that consists of a great many different techniques and processes (or patterns as they are more commonly known within NLP).

Some, like the fast phobia cure and anchoring can seem weird and pseudo-science to people who don’t understand why and how they work. (Hint: A mixture of science and the clients belief system)

Imagine you’ve been in therapy for years with issues centered around an intense phobia of snakes and I bound into the room and declare:

“Worry not kind sir/lady, I can have you hugging serpents and taking them out for dinner in no time at all. Once that is, I’ve remembered where I put my magic wand, black cloak and pocket watch on a chain”

You’re likely to be suspicious at best, and at worst, downright terrified of me. And rightly so,  because that is one hell of a claim I have just made because people can go through months, if not years to cure such phobias.

However, if I can get past the initial stage of disbelief and point you toward the fact that a great many registered therapists now use such techniques (after initially ridiculing them when they were initially developed) then you are far more likely to be receptive.

NLP Is Not The Cure To All Mans (or Woman’s) Ills

Secondly, I don’t think the attitude and skill level of some NLP Practitioners or NLPers (pronounced nelpers) as they are often known, helps matters in the least.

There’s a tendency by a very vocal few to suggest NLP is the cure to everything and that anybody who thinks to the contrary is ill informed and/or stupid.

This kind of evangelical thinking can, a little bit like politics and religion, quite rightly be a real turn off to for many people in any walk of life. It’s takes the strident, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ approach that isn’t at all useful.

But, whereas religion and politics are largely subjective, some of the claims by Nlpers are not even that, they’re just flat out scientifically and ethically wrong.

They are often also at best idiotic and at worst, damaging and dangerous.

I once had somebody follow me on Social Media who was talking about using NLP to cure cancer.

In my opinion that’s delusional and damages not only the credibility of the man saying it, but that of professional practitioners who use NLP responsibly.

Only a year or so ago I had a woman contact me who wanted to pay me (very) good money to help ‘cure’ her best friend from stage IV brain cancer.

Her late husband had been an NLP fanatic and she believed that it could cure her friend.

It can’t.

Heartbreaking though it was to tell her that I couldn’t help (and neither could anybody else) and it was better for her to just spend quality time with her friend, it was morally and ethically the right thing to do.

It’s not just some of the outrageous claims that damage NLP either. 

For example, if you have a relative with a serious psychiatric disorder and asked me for advice, I would not encourage you to take them to an NLP Practitioner.

Unless that is, the practitioner also had a background in mental health – and some do by the way.

I know there are a few brilliant NLP and /or hypnotherapists who possibly could help in such circumstances  (and I do emphasize possibly, because it is a long way from being certain), but they are statistical outliers and very hard to hire.

These days, most NLP Practitioners do 8 or even as little as 6, days of training and that’s it! In fact I recently saw a course offering a 2-day weekend diploma, which is outrageous.

You cannot use NLP as an intervention technique after a 2-day crash course.

There are still a few companies that offer longer courses, but the number is declining, primarily because most people want to get ‘qualified’ as quickly and cheaply as possible. That’s just how our microwave ‘I want it now’ Society works sadly.

My original NLP training was 15 very long days and then a further 2 tacked on for Time Line Therapy.  I then did 18 days at Master Practitioner level, 10 days of hypnotherapy training and other assorted courses.

Even that doesn’t leave me feeling like I have come even close to mastering NLP, and I will never take a client on who obviously needs medical intervention.

I’m a Life Coach that borrows a few therapeutic techniques to occasionally speed up the process, not vice versa.

I also only teach 3 NLP patterns on the Coach The Life Coach course because they are the 3 I use the most frequently and I have the best results with. I do get quite heavily into the language side of NLP but that’s another matter.

System Hijack Alert Warning Message

The Hi-Jacking of NLP

The third reason that NLP suffers is because, along with hypnotherapy, it’s been hi-jacked by some nefarious types who spotted the chance to make a fast buck.

They realized after reading The Game by Neil Strauss (a brilliant and highly recommended book that takes a look behind the scenes of the LA pick up scene and how a group of people used NLP to be more successful with women,) that language patterns and something called sleight of mouth can be used to manipulate people.

As such, there has been a proliferation of websites of dubious credibility  claiming to be able to sell you the secrets of NLP that will result in instant world domination and have people at your beck and call.

The real secret behind being good at the language side of NLP is hidden in plain site. It’s called practice.

Anybody can become great at language patterns if they read books like Sleight of Mouth by Robert Dilts (al) or watch DVD’s by fantastic trainers and then spend the time practicing what they learn.

Note: I highly recommend anything by David Gordon (al) as he is probably the worlds leading export on using metaphors to effect change.

Handing over $97 for an ebook will not help you get a date, unless you’re trying to pull the sad 15 year old geek who now has your money.

NLP Is More Established Than You Think

Fortunately though NLP has managed to keep its head above water. No doubt helped by the fact that some of the planets most successful companies including Mercedes Benz, American Express have embraced it for everything from sales to customer support and executive training.

My own first exposure to NLP was circa 2003 when my then employer, ADP (Automatic Data Processing), the worlds largest payroll outsourcing company, brought in trainers to teach NLP to the sales staff to help with our performance.

Companies like the ones I mentioned are not built on throwing their money and weight behind woo-woo processes that may or may not work, they succeed because they know what will and will not give them the edge.

Political speech writers (Spin Doctors) know all too well the power of NLP and are trained in advanced language patterns and to use artfully vague language perfected by Milton Erickson.

The Milton Model

As I said perviously, Erickson would use a lot of metaphors, but he also developed a system of language called the Milton Model by Bandler and Grinder.

The Milton Model is the flip side of the Meta Model in so much that it is deliberately vague so that the listener can fill in the gaps and make it feel like it’s applicable to them.

That’s the reason politicians use it so often. By deleting and generalizing they can (hopefully) get the listener to fill in the gaps in anyway that feels good to them and has them agreeing with the speaker.

Donald Trump is currently nailing it by using the Meta Model and talking without really saying anything specific – and it’s working.

Of course it doesn’t always work, but it does a lot of the time which is why people can have such opposing views about a speech given when they have heard exactly the same information.

And experts in fields as diverse as teaching, athletics and the arts employ NLP to help improve performance.

As do some trial attorneys who employ certain NLP techniques to help sway jurors.

Oh, and one other area uses NLP and hypnotherapy to massive effect that I almost forgot about.


Some of the more well known TV celebrity Preachers and Ministers are ‘helping‘ their flock give generously by using some very cunning and manipulative techniques.

Whether he deliberately uses it or not, Joel Osteen is a master at NLP, but maybe that’s a post for another time.

So what are your thoughts on NLP? I’d love to hear in the comments.


  1. Hi Tim, great post thank you for taking the time to structure it so well. I am fascinated by NLP, and keen to learn more. The aspects we dealt with on the CTLC course whetted my appetite but I’ve yet to formalise any specific ‘training’.

    In response to your section on ‘the map is not the territory’ and the ‘petty arguments on Facebook’, I have seen this first hand recently with a set of identical twin sisters in their 40s. Each posts about how they have been ‘wronged’ by the other, about how only ‘they know the truth’, and each has a following to sympathise with their ‘plight’! I have met one personally and have attempted to suggest the above, how they each have their own ‘truth’ depending on their story and their beliefs about the world. It’s so sad to watch them in their vitriolic posts about each other played out in public. I’d love for everyone to have an increased awareness of even this one aspect of NLP and how it can affect everyday life.

    I’ve recently read ‘Your Brain at Work’ by David Rock too, and am now re-reading it!

    We really are fascinating creatures us humans aren’t we? 😉

    • Tim Brownson

      Yep, that’s a great use of their time eh? How to waste your life. Keep reliving grievances 🙁

  2. Thank you. This is a great summary Tim. I love the examples you have given and your down to earth analysis. You are right that for some NLP is still a great mystery and psychobabble to many. Yet it certainly does work. I have had some real breakthroughs with clients by combining elements of NLP and Co-active coaching . The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, drawing from many different coaching models has a distinct advantage when helping clients. Your point about coaches needing a number of different skills is well taken. Everyone is different and needs to be supported in the way that best matches their style, personality and expectations.

    • Tim Brownson

      Thanks Keith and I’m really grateful to have somebody other than myself who uses this approach to speak up with an open mind!

  3. Thank you Tim. Great post, and a great explanation of NLP, which is something that I agree there are too many short courses going on for. Much like life coaching certification. I think also there are therapeutic techniques very similar to NLP that work really well, but because it is “trademarked”, people are more apt to use NLP. Same with CBT. I don’t know that this is good or bad, but I find it an interesting facet of human behaviour.

    • Tim Brownson

      Which ones are trademarked Sonia? I know Core Transformation and Time Line Therapy are, but I’m not aware of any other NLP or therapeutic techniques off the top of my head.

  4. Michael Wecke

    Hi Tim, I didn’t really want to read another article about NLP, but because you wrote it, I thought I’ll give it a go. I’m happy I did. In a very short space you have succinctly provided an informative overview, with some good references again. It just may be that the longer we as a human race manage not to blow ourselves out of the sky, we will advance in our knowledge of how the psyche works and how it works with the body’s language – as explored by a technique referred to as MBIT. Certainly language has a crucial effect on our well-being and outlook on the world. I realised the importance of language as a 15 year old and my thinking was “If I could be the perfect cook to all people of this planet, and have the perfect command of language, I would reign the earth”! Hmm – okay, not there yet…
    As to self-harm: I would argue that its intent is not always of a positive nature. If someone goes to work daily, but doesn’t do what he’ supposed to be doing and risks being fired, but continues being lazy – then gets fired, loses home and income and becomes a street bum and is miserable about it…then where was the positive intent? Just a question. I suppose “positive intent” is as much subjective language or labelling as is the opposite.

    But the research is fascinating all the same, especially the way we change labels, e.g. as you mentioned “There is no failure, only feedback”. I did an NLP seminar back in the late 80’s and have some study material still and would love to do the extended 6-week NLP course up to Master’s level.
    Even with the little that I know, “reframing’ on its own has often helped me getting out of negative downward spiral.

    Yes, great post!!

  5. Tim Brownson

    Thank you sir!

    Take you example in isolation. The positive intent on day one maybe to avoid the pain of work or enjoy staying at home or just being lazy.

    When we start to look at the bigger picture it’s harder to spot the PI, but it’s there at the beginning of every action – just not always that obvious.

  6. Tim, this is a super article. I love how you explain NLP in a way that makes perfect sense and your examples and metaphors make it real. Thanks, I am going to bookmark this and go back to it again and again, I’m sure.